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May 29, 2007 > Boy genius goes to war

Boy genius goes to war

By Steve Warga

Officially, they were called Motor Torpedo Boats, or MTBs. But the Navy never could resist insider lingo, so the 77 - 80 foot, V-hulled speed demons were named and numbered as "Patrol Boats Torpedo" or "PT boats" as we all think of them today. They were perhaps the most dashing, romantic posting in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Only submariners boasted more panache.

Originally conceived as light duty, shallow water patrol craft, some naval warfare whiz had the bright idea of mounting torpedo launchers on deck and sending those fragile, little plywood contraptions into deep water channels to hunt and destroy enemy vessels. Japanese warships were often within range of Allied garrisons manning South Pacific islands bases. Brave - and maybe foolish - volunteers manning PT boats would spot the enemy, point their bows on a torpedo run, then hold a course straight and true until they launched their deadly tubes of high explosives.

If the PT boat survived a wicked hail of molten steel and brutal explosives directed from the Japanese target, the helmsman would slam three throttle levers to their stops and yank that vulnerable boat into a gut-wrenching turn heading out-of-range. Three Packard V-12 gasoline engines, bellowing at full song, would point that V-hull to a near vertical orientation until cavitation plates took the boat into high-speed trim. Those 36 pulse-pounding, fire-belching pistons, producing a combined 4,500 horsepower, could whip that gunboat out of range fast!

For some, it wasn't fast enough to outrace high-speed bullets and shells. The hulls of those boats - affectionately known as "mosquito boats" - were made of lightweight plywood, so thin it wouldn't even stop a handgun bullet. With no armor plating, the two officers and nine enlisted men aboard had no way to deflect gunfire except to race away at top speed, wildly weaving in a deadly, water-borne version of dodge ball.

Crazy as it seems, the PT boats worked. They accounted for astonishing totals of sunken ship tonnage during their years of service, far exceeding their own modest weights. It was lethally efficient bottom-line warfare. Fremont resident, Dave Hendricks, was one of those brave souls firing torpedoes and other weapons at the enemy from nearly naked positions.

Dave's heroics began some time before he first set foot on a mosquito boat. In fact, they began even before he finished high school. Dave was born, December 3, 1923 in Elgin, Illinois, about 40 miles west of downtown Chicago. Little more than a farming community, Elgin was home of the Elgin National Watch Factory. Dave's father worked for the watch company, like many other Elgin citizens. He was a master machinist, skilled in producing miniature, carefully-calibrated cogs and wheels, springs and plates that go into to a finely crafted timepiece. Elgin watches boasted superior accuracy and reliability, including timing mechanisms precisely calculated by their very own observatory and telescope. "Timed by the stars!" was their advertising slogan. The prosperous company built and sponsored the Elgin Watch College where aspiring craftsmen studied and honed their skills for nearly four decades.

Beyond his vocational talents, and to his everlasting pride and delight, George Hendricks and his wife, Minnie, produced a son whose own mechanical aptitude dazzled everyone in the design department at Elgin National Watch Company. While still in high school, Dave began visiting his father at work, and immediately demonstrated an intuitive, genius-level affinity for all things mechanical. It wasn't long before he had his own design station and was drafting plans for precisely-engineered presses and dies necessary to produce Elgin watches.

One day, not long before the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor, Dave's supervisor placed a small, cylindrical device on his drafting board; every other designer received one of these contrivances. After being sworn to secrecy, the engineers were told that the device was a top secret "proximity fuze" under development for use in Allied weapons trying to destroy German aircraft bent on turning London into a pile of smoking rubble. The intent of this fuze (later spelled "fuse") was to detect the proximity of an aircraft, then trigger an explosion of the shell into a burst of deadly shrapnel. The fuse only worked in theory. Shells were not only passing harmlessly beyond their targets, but then looped back to the ground where they would explode among innocent civilians.

"I looked at that thing on my desk, day after day," Dave recalls, "knowing that every day we couldn't make that thing work meant more civilians dying. It was all I could think about." Dave's exceptionally large, and still-limber hands, brush frantically across his skull as he remembers the sense of frustration haunting him at the tender age of 18. It's the same gesture he uses when he can't quite pull a certain memory or detail from that "boy genius" brain at age 84. ("But if I walk backward, I'm only 48!" he'll tell you with a teasing little smile.)

"I remember focusing on the forces working on those fuses. Oh, I don't remember the exact numbers anymore, but I tried to picture that warhead spinning out of the gun barrel with so much thrust that it would travel something like eight miles out before losing its momentum. I looked at the thin little wire connecting the sensor with the battery and trigger switch; and I suddenly knew the answer."

"I ran to my boss and said, 'Can I speak to you in the hall for a minute?' Well, of course he came right out and I told him, 'I think I know what's wrong with this proximity fuse.'"

Not long after, a group of War Department officials visited the factory. At one point that day, every one of Elgin's 400-plus employees left their work areas and gathered on the lawn in front of the landmark Elgin Watchtower. Dave was called forward to receive a commendation and a check for $2,500 - a princely sum of money in 1941.

He still marvels at the stunningly simple solution. "Can you imagine ... a boy like me figuring this out? I found out later there were two other companies working on the same problem, one of them was Kodak. And I was the one who figured it out!" He stares in wonder into the distance, those big hands restlessly stroking the arms of his chair.

With that level of engineering talent in play, Dave could have sat out the war behind a desk, designing ever more efficient weapons and ordinance. But, after the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, Dave, like so many other young men and women, felt an ever-growing urge to enlist and put themselves in harm's way,. He chose the Navy and found his reputation preceding him. Right after boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Station on the frigid shores of Lake Michigan, the boy genius was hustled off to the weapons bunkers to tackle another fusing challenge - one that was sending many a brave submariner to Davy Jones' Locker in the depths of the Pacific.

"The Navy had those old Mark VIII torpedoes stock-piled from World War I. Through all those years in storage, the fuse mechanisms collected rust and dust enough to jam them. Our guys would get into position to sink an enemy ship; they'd fire those Mark VIIIs and hear nothing but a big, loud 'clank' when they hit the target. The fuses were frozen and would never arm. The only thing those damn things were good for was to show the enemy where to lay their depth charges."

Once again, Dave's solution was elegantly simple. "I went out and bought cans of a certain type of grease; I can't remember the name of it, but it claimed to be the slipperiest stuff around. I'd pull the fuse heads from those torpedoes, clean all that rust away and just grease the living daylights out of them."

After that, Dave became the Navy's de facto torpedo expert. Stationed at Treasure Island in San Francisco, he spent the first year or so of his service greasing torpedo fuses and serving as the "go-to guy" for loading those dangerous cylinders onto ships headed for the front.

"There I was, just a kid from Illinois, walking up to a ship captain and telling him how to load his cargo. Can you imagine that? And, by God, that captain had to do what I said, or face the music from Naval Command.

"I had a Navy issue station wagon and I'd just hop in every day and drive all over creation, working on those damn old torpedoes. I went to Mare Island, Concord Naval Weapons Station, even down to San Diego, just working on those torpedo fuses.

"Then one afternoon, I checked the bulletin board at Treasure Island and found I was headed to New Guinea the next morning. I hardly had time to pack!" He was billeted for awhile at this staging area, awaiting assignment to a PT squadron when another challenge limped into the harbor.

"About two in the morning, someone shakes me awake and says to report to the harbor. They directed me to one of those big, President Lines, merchant ships full of soldiers headed to the Solomon Islands.

"Their problem was, they had an unexploded Japanese torpedo hanging through the hull, about ten feet below the waterline. I was the lucky guy who got to go down in the belly of that ship and disarm the torpedo.

"The crew had to pump air into that compartment with enough pressure to force the water out for me to get to the torpedo. I went down and there was this ugly, black snout poking about four feet through the hull. I only had a flashlight to see by and I immediately found out none of my tools would fit the metric fasteners they used.

"So there I was, standing in a couple of feet of water, with just a flashlight and some tools that wouldn't fit. Plus, I didn't know the first damn thing about Japanese torpedoes! Did I tell you they wouldn't risk anyone else to help me with that?"

Of course, there'd be no personal recounting of this little adventure if Dave had made a mistake. Somehow, he managed to disarm the weapon and supervised its extraction. Ship fitters patched the hull and the troops continued their journey. After that, Dave's posting to PT 37 at the MTB base in Tulagi Harbor, across the channel from Guadalcanal, might have been easy duty. It wasn't; there's nothing easy about war.

Dave served valiantly as a Warrant Torpedoman on PT37 which sank several enemy ships and shot down numerous enemy planes. He was one of only two survivors after a British shell, fired from a British gun captured by the Japanese in Singapore, scored a direct hit on the 37 boat.

There was one horrifying day when a flight of B-25 bombers - American bombers - settled into a bombing run over a brace of PT boats, including Dave's.

"Some idiot with a pencil back at flight command had told those pilots there were no friendly surface craft operating that day in that area. When those bomb bay doors opened, we had no choice."

Dave whipped the twin .50 caliber Browning machine guns skyward and shot down his own side's aircraft. His brown eyes cloud over as he looks far away at a memory still burning brightly as those flaming airplanes and his fellow Americans falling into the deep blue Pacific.

There were other killings, far more than any decent human being should ever encounter. It would be several years after war's end before Dave "could turn off the motor of my mind," he says, twisting an imaginary key with his long, strong fingers.

With wanderlust in his soul, a brilliant aptitude for machinery and the hands to turn ideas into reality, Dave embarked on an eclectic career path. He was recruited by Hughes Tool Company in Houston, Tex. to produce the country's first carbide-tipped drills for use by West Texas wildcatters drilling for oil. He helped steer the Scoopmobile Company in Portland, Ore. into a world-class manufacturer of industrial-sized front end loaders. And, while employed by Western Can Company in San Francisco, Dave traveled the country studying equipment and methods needed to mass-produce pop-top aluminum cans. Needless to say, he succeeded.

Wherever he went, the title of "Chief Engineer" soon found its way to the frosted glass door of his office. But his restless curiosity would not wait long before stirring him to seek new challenges. He has lived in many states in his day and in several other countries as well, until retiring a few years ago.

Dave now resides at Fremont's "historic gem," the Belvoir Springs Hotel (TCV, 12/12/06). He feeds the many community cats that also call the Belvoir home, drowsing in the sun beside them. Those who know his story speculate on how many generations have lived full, productive lives due to the life-saving efforts of a very observant young man in Illinois who noticed that a certain fuse wire was not sturdy enough to do its job.

Memorial Day honors all veterans who risked, and many who gave their lives to preserve freedom in the world. David Lynn Hendricks, one of many unsung American heroes, represents the best of the American spirit. Even now, after all those years of designing and building, living through the ravages of war, those marvelous hands rarely rest; still fiddling with this, or adjusting that. Old habits never die.

TCV hopes all will pause and remember the meaning of Memorial Day; to honor men and women such as David Hendricks, who risked and sacrificed their lives - and continue to do so - preserving the American dream: freedom of thought and the personal liberty to express opinions without fear.

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